The credits of the film Venus Peter, directed by Ian Sellar in 1989, say that it was based on Christopher Rush’s book A Twelvemonth and a Day, which was published in 1985. I haven’t read that book, but it must be heavily drawn from Rush’s own experience, because his memoir Hellfire and Herring, published in 2007, bears many similarities to the events and characters of the film of eighteen years earlier. However, whereas the tone of the film is gentle, lyrical, dream-like, much of the memoir has a mood of exorcism, reliving pain and unhappiness in order to assuage it.
Venus Peter depicts episodes in the childhood of a boy named Peter in an unidentified fishing village in Scotland at some time during the 1950s or 1960s. Its credits say that it was “shot entirely on location on the Orkney Islands” and that many of its extras are the adults and children of Stromness. In fact Rush actually grew up in St Monans in Fife. One of the film’s key settings is a church which is situated beside the sea and which has a large sailing ship hanging from its nave and I believe this location is not in Orkney but is the medieval parish church of St Monans.
The narrative surrounds Peter with many colourful characters, and Rush’s memoir allows you to identify their real-life equivalents. Epp, the forbidding grandmother figure, was actually his mother’s great-aunt and their landlady. Leebie seems like an aunt, but, as Rush writes in his book, “nobody had ever worked out who exactly Leebie was (and even) Leebie herself didn’t know, or pretended not to.” His young mother, Christina, was certainly close in age to her sisters Jenny and Georgina but Uncle Billy was actually still at school rather than a young adult sailing on the fishing boat Venus.
Scenes of sadism by teachers and parents are often de rigeur in films of childhood as adults expel their long-ago nightmares. Hellfire and Herring does spend a number of pages on the middle-aged and fiendish teacher Miss Sangster and a few about the beautiful and lovable Miss Balsilbie. Sellar’s film gives more prominence to Miss Balsilbie, and places her as a later consolation in Peter’s schooldays rather than in her real-life earlier place. This presents the two teachers as uncannily similar to Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in the film of Matilda – even though this is a total coincidence, since Dahl only published his novel in the late 1980s and Danny De Vito’s film was made nearly ten years after that. But Miss Balsilbie’s similarity in looks and manner to Jean Brodie in Ronald Neame’s film is probably a direct borrow.
The St Monans of his childhood was “like growing up in a Bosch boneyard, ” says Rush, because, partly due to decades of inbreeding, it was full of people whose looks and behaviour were strange and frightening. Bowfter Sandy went around on all fours trying to bite people’s legs and Kate the Kist visited the boat-builders’ every day to ask to be measured for a coffin. Three others are included in the film. The Blind Man is a classic child’s fear figure out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, especially as he reacted aggressively to the boys’ teasing. The sailor Gowans who recited meaningless rhyming phrases is made much younger. The genteel but lost Honeybunch, who made outlines of ships with stones on the beach and who had to be washed by the sexton on his workbench because she never bothered to wash herself, becomes Princess Paloma.
Rush’s real-life father was a young Royal Navy sailor from Middlesborough who was briefly posted to Fife during the war, met and married Christina and then returned two years later in 1945, to meet his infant son Christopher. Rush’s memoir recalls him as drunk, disturbed, violent and cruel, and he feels it necessary to describe several horrible scenes, even as he is brave enough to recount how he came to understand his father later when an adult. In Venus Peter, the father is not horrific but certainly flawed, who left his home town to go to sea because he was fearful of responsibility and whose attempts to make amends later are seen as insincere and materialistic.
The fisherman grandfather, master of the Venus, is the prominent adult in the film. In the book he is a little more mysterious, hidden within the larger cast of characters, but in both he is kind, protective, physically impressive and wise.
Religion is presented as an oppressive and threatening and reactionary force in both film and book. St Monans and the adjacent towns in the East Neuk of Fife were called “The Holy City”, says Rush, because of their diverse groups of Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, Pilgrims, Baptists and Evangelists. The Presbyterian church stands for all religion in the film, and the one authority figure who is more intimidating in the film than in the book is the Reverend Kinnear, although David Hayman is allowed to show him as also sympathetic and supportive.
Nevertheless, religious faith is part of the grandfather’s allegory of creation which ends both book and film. As is the sea. In Venus Peter, Peter says, “the sea is everything”. In Hellfire and Herring, Rush says the sea “(was) my first language, my first university, my alma mater”. Grandfather’s maritime story goes like this: once there was a whale which gave birth to the ship which was the earth…and the whale swam up to heaven…leaving us all alone on the ship. And sometimes, when you look carefully, you can still see the whale… there, before it dives.
Reference : Rush, Christopher (2007) Hellfire and Herring: a Childhood Remembered London:Profile